Afghanistan and women’s cricket: can the world help?

Only the most heartless of us can have failed to be appalled by the scenes coming out of Afghanistan in recent weeks, or to be profoundly disturbed by the implications for many Afghans, and especially for Afghan women and girls, of their country’s falling once again into the grip of the Taliban’s rigid and often barbaric version of Sharia law.

There are many more urgent questions facing the women of Afghanistan than the future of women’s sport, and perhaps it is a symptom of the enclosed world of cricket that the consequences for the development of the fledgling women’s game in that country should suddenly have loomed so large against the backdrop of the much larger catastrophe.

But Cricket Australia’s threat to cancel the long-awaited, much-delayed men’s Test in Hobart in November should the Taliban’s apparent intention to ban women’s sport entirely be confirmed inevitably grabbed headlines, and understandably triggered a new round of the debate about the propriety and value of sanctions against countries which offend against our norms of a humane society.

Much has been written and spoken since the fall of Kabul and the re-establishment of the Islamic Emirate, not all of it equally thoughtful or well-informed, and it is inevitably a question which raises passions, even though what is required is a careful, balanced approach to a difficult and many-faceted issue.

Those who have watched Tim Albone’s moving 2010 film Out of the Ashes, about the astonishing rise of men’s cricket in Afghanistan, may remember the declaration of Taj Malik, one of the founding fathers of the game in his country, that in the midst of war cricket can be an instrument of peace, with its echo of Nelson Mandela’s dictum that sport can transform despair into hope.

As we see the hopes of so many Afghan women – and, for that matter, men – turn to despair, it is not surprising that we ask if we as outsiders can do anything, and specifically anything to make matters better rather than worse. After all, outsiders don’t have a great record of interference in Afghanistan’s affairs.

There is a school of thought that the only difference between the policy of the Western-backed governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani and that of the Taliban is that the latter have been ‘saying the quiet part out loud’; that by explicitly banning women’s sport including cricket – if that is indeed what they are doing – the Taliban are merely bringing into the open a policy which has operated implicitly since 2001, and that the ACB has been complicit in that policy.

Quite apart from the fact that in other sports, notably football, it has been incontrovertible that women’s sport was actively encouraged in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2021, there is some evidence that the ACB has, at least at some periods of its existence, been more proactive in this area than its Western critics give it credit for.

One part of CEO Hamid Shinwari’s recent appeal to Cricket Australia which the ACB’s critics have conveniently ignored is his claim that ‘there has been a quiet but significant development of women’s cricket in Afghanistan over the past 10 years in girls-only schools where cricket is an integral part of the health education process.’

Nor has it been noted that until the Taliban takeover the ACB employed Walawala Taraki as Women’s Cricket Director, or that at least in recent years the ACB Board has included two women members, latterly Minister for Women’s Affairs Hasma Safi (who has now fled to the UK) and former Deputy Minister for Commerce and Industry Kamala Sidiqi – at least one more than many governing bodies can boast.

You could, of course, argue that this was mere lip-service, and that the Board was only going through the motions in order to create the illusion that it was seeking to make progress in the development of women’s cricket. But one could suggest that this is to carry cynicism much too far, and that the ACB, for all its manifest dependence on the Karzai-Ghani governments and the revolving-door history of its CEOs, reminiscent of the worst days of the Italian governments of the 1950s and 1960s, deserves some measure of understanding of the social and political climate in which it has been operating.

There is a massive difference between the softly-softly approach of the ACB, inconsistent as it undoubtedly has been, and the rigid totalitarianism of the Taliban, and to insist that the latter is just an explicit version of what already existed, is to commit a profound injustice to those who have worked to create a better world for Afghan women, in sport as in many other fields.

Amidst much that remains horrifying, there are signs that this Taliban regime may be marginally less appalling than its previous incarnation: we may, in our enlightened Western way, condemn the ruling that university education must be segregated on the basis of gender, but that is still preferable to a ban on women attending university altogether. And if the outcry against a Taliban spokesman’s pronouncement about the forbidding of women’s sport has led to a softening of that draconian position, then we should be asking how we can best foster that tiny seedling of hope.

To proceed directly to a boycott, or a suspension of Afghanistan’s membership of the ICC, might well reinforce the Taliban’s intransigence, although there is no doubt that the threat of sanctions should remain on the table, to encourage the ACB to maintain its position and to strengthen its hand in any negotiations with the Taliban government.

We should not underestimate the degree to which the men’s teams’ on-field successes in cricket, a sport which was after all encouraged by Taliban Mark I, have contributed to the country’s pride, nor should we assume that this is something which will be entirely lost on Taliban Mark 2.

This is a time for smart, carefully-directed diplomacy on the part of cricket’s governing bodies, which is not something for which they have earned a scintillating reputation. They need to think beyond the balance-sheet and their own narrow self-interest, and deploy the power of cricket as a force for equality and peace. Afghanistan and its women cricketers deserve no less.

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